Contextual Theology and Its Dangers

I was recently made aware of a blog post by a colleague of mine from Seminary. If I am remembering correctly, she is a graduating senior this year. Kendra is no slouch, she is an excellent student and a sharp theological mind. Take a look at her post The Triumphs and Danger of a Hyphenated Theology: A Step Toward a More Holistic, Inclusive Theology. In this post I would like to offer a response that is not so much a critique, but I hope another voice in this much-needed discussion.

Things We Agree On

In her essay, Kendra makes many good points. She points out the fact that the very presence of Contextual Theology (what she is calling hyphenated or adjectival theology) is a victory of sorts. Contextual Theology often represents the voice of the minority and oppressed in theological discourse. For example, we see the prominence of Black Theology with figures like James Cone. Although I disagree with most of Cone’s conclusions, his voice was a bit of a bombshell on the landscape of theology and provided a much-needed corrective to what had been previously a predominantly majority voiced discipline. Although Contextual Theology is not, and by definition can never be, the majority position, theologians who may never have had to interact with the struggle of oppressed minorities now have to at least grapple with the concepts from a theoretical position. Furthermore, major figures like Cone have begun to pave a way for minority scholarship and minority scholars to be engaged in academic theology from their own context, rather  than by having to adapt to the predominant context of western white academia.

Second, Kendra also points out that the presence of Contextual Theology does not serve ultimately to unify the Church, but to further bifurcate the Church, often along racial lines. This is similar to my perennial critique of Black-, Asian-, Women-, or Insert Minority-Month. It is not that it is a bad thing to study the unique history of these minority groups, it is that it is a bad thing to segregate them off from the rest of history. February (Black History Month) is often used as an excuse to ignore Black History the other 11 months out of the year. Furthermore, to abstract Black History somehow implies that White History, or any other history, could somehow be separated from it, as if to say that we can think about the history of White Americans in the 1960s without discussion of the Civil Rights movement.

Finally, Kendra makes the point that often times the groups that are represented by Contextual Theologies often have unique and valuable perspectives to contribute to the theological enterprise. This is absolutely true. A good example is that of the distinction between individualistic cultures (typically Western European and North American cultures) and that of more corporate or communal cultures (typical of Asian, African, Middle-Eastern and to some extent South American cultures). By and large, the contribution of a more communal perspective has come by way of minority groups who come from cultural contexts in which the idea of an individualistic existence is somewhat alien.

Further Thoughts

Now, I don’t really consider these to be corrections or critiques of what Kendra has said. There are areas that Kendra and I disagree on in theology, and I would suspect that there are aspects of Contextual Theology that she would see as positive and I would see as negative. However, prima facia I have no problem with what she has written here.

This might be somewhat of a caution that I would add to her post, or a disclaimer of sorts.

The purpose of Kendra’s post was clearly to call the Church to reconciliation and incorporation of minority groups and perspectives. These, as I have said above, are both good things. However, we must nuance this a bit further I think.

We must incorporate the views of minority groups and perspectives, in so far as they are true and reflect the truth revealed in Scripture. Before anyone jumps on me, this needs to be done of majority theology and theologians as well. The example of individualistic / communal theology above is an example of minority theology correcting majority theology. However, in my experience with contextual theology, a large portion of minority or contextual theology is methodologically and theologically suspect. I will give just a few examples of what I see as the most obvious examples.

Native American Contextual Theology

A common theme in Native American Contextual Theology is that of the Conquest Narratives of Joshua. What is unique methodologically is that the Native American theological interpretation begins by viewing themselves as the conquered Canaanites. They then draw theological principles for what it means to be God’s people under the oppression of a conquering people. Now, this is problematic for a number of reasons. The Book of Joshua and the Conquest Narratives are intended to tell us the historical account of the events in question, and to show that God is faithful to the promise he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Anytime we see ourselves in a text and begin to allegorize ourselves into a historical account we have already stepped off the ledge. This does not mean that we cannot draw principles from the text, but the principles we draw ought not include placing ourselves in the text. The American’s who perpetrated crimes against the Native Americans are not Israelites, and the Native Americans are not Canaanites. Second, even if transplanting ourselves into the text was a valid hermeneutical method, the Canaanites were not God’s people, so drawing principles regarding how to be God’s people under the oppression of a conquering force is going to lead you to wrong principles.

African Ancestor/Animist Theology

I remember during my run through Systematic Theology II we were required to read Christology by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen. In this book, which is excellent, he gives an overview of Christology and the various historical and cultural contributions and perspectives. I don’t have the page or specific quote in front of me (if you want me to track it down specifically, leave a comment), but I remember sitting at Panera reading and actually setting my book down to pray when I came across a particular contextual theology. The gist of the quote was that Africans need not give up their ancestor worship, or their animism, rather they need to see Jesus as the ultimate Ancestor, and the Holy Spirit as the ultimate animating force. I literally was sick to my stomach. Now, Kärkkäinen’s purpose in the book was not to argue for or against various positions, but only to describe them. There was another quote that explicitly said that Africans need not give up their polytheism to follow Jesus.

Hold Fast What is Good

There is immense wisdom in other cultures. The Church must not neglect the voices of her smaller groups. However, she must also recognize that just because a voice is there does not mean that it is true or valuable. The same must be said of the larger groups. While Paul is specifically talking about prophetic gifts when he says this, the principle he is advocating applies here as well.

Test everything; hold fast what is good. (1 Thessalonians  5:21, ESV)

We must measure all theology (and theologies) against the rubric of Scripture, retain that which is in accord with Scripture, and reject that which is opposed. This includes theology done by majority groups, as well as theology done by minority groups. This includes theology that has been long established, or theology that is being proposed. This includes theological conclusions that we hold, and the theology that others hold. This includes the theology of our tradition, as well as the theology of other people’s traditions.

Test it all. Accept that which is true, and reject that which is not.